Answering a Reader’s Objection . . . and Answering Richard Dawkins

On May 5, 2012, reader Thopter raised an objection to my earlier blog entry, “The Big Bang Is Happening Now.” Thopter wrote:

The Big BangThere is another option: That the only reason the universe *appears* to be fine-tuned to support life is because if any of those things were different, we wouldn’t be here to observe it. We don’t know if other universes exist, with different force strengths, which are incapable of accommodating life, so we cannot rule out the possibility that we just happened to hit the jackpot and develop inside a rare universe that has the right balances to harbour life. There is no evidence either way just yet, so neither scenario can be dismissed.

To restate, Thopter suggests that the seeming fine-tuning of the universe could simply be an incredible fluke, and if we hadn’t “hit the jackpot,” we wouldn’t be here to wonder about it. I addressed this objection in my book God and Soul, so to save time, I decided to simply plunk down an excerpt from my book. In that excerpt, I also critique Richard Dawkins’ discussion of these questions in The God Delusion.  Dawkins’ discussion is, in my view, extremely misleading. The excerpt follows. I’d be eager to know what you think . . .


Richard Dawkins takes an odd approach when discussing the anthropic principle in his 2006 book The God Delusion. He writes:

It is a strange fact, incidentally, that religious apologists love the anthropic principle. For some reason that makes no sense at all, they think it supports their case. Precisely the opposite is true. The anthropic principle, like natural selection, is an alternative to the design hypothesis. It provides a rational, design-free explanation for the fact that we find ourselves in a situation propitious to our existence. I think the confusion arises in the religious mind because the anthropic principle is only ever mentioned in the context of the problem that it solves, namely the fact that we live in a life-friendly place. What the religious mind then fails to grasp is that two candidate solutions are offered to the problem. God is one. The anthropic principle is the other. They are alternatives.

I don’t know if Richard Dawkins is engaging in sly disinformation or if he simply hasn’t done his homework. In either case, he’s simply wrong. There are not just “two candidate solutions” to the question of origins, either God or the anthropic principle. The anthropic principle comes in assorted flavors, including a weak and strong version.

The weak anthropic principle is essentially a circular statement or tautology: The universe appears to be fine-tuned for life because if it wasn’t we wouldn’t be here to observe it. This weak form is apparently the flavor of anthropic principle Dawkins refers to above.

The strong anthropic principle goes a step further and says (according to Brandon Carter) that the universe and its constants, forces, and parameters “must be such as to admit the creation of observers within it at some stage” in order for the universe to exist. Why must the universe and its parameters be fine-tuned so as to admit the creation of observers? In The Anthropic Cosmological Principle (1986), John Barrow and Frank Tipler offer three possible answers to that question:

(A) There exists one possible Universe ‘designed’ with the goal of generating and sustaining ‘observers.’ 

(B) Observers are necessary to bring the Universe into being.

(C) An ensemble of other different universes is necessary for the existence of our Universe.

Option A is the God hypothesis, the Cosmic Designer. It suggests that perhaps the universe is able to produce and sustain living observers because it was deliberately designed to do so. That is the goal and purpose of the universe, and the parameters necessary to achieve that goal and carry out that purpose were laid down at the moment of the Big Bang. This is the view I present throughout this book.

Option B, “Observers are necessary to bring the Universe into being,” is known as the participatory anthropic principle. Physicist John Wheeler entertained this view. George Greenstein’s “symbiotic universe” is also a version of this view. According to Greenstein, observers need a universe to live in, and a universe needs observers in order to exist, so the universe and its observers participate symbiotically in bringing each other into existence. Fred Hoyle also considered this view when he wrote:

A further possibility … [is that our existence] forces the nuclear details to be the way they are, which is essentially the common religious position taken backwards. Before ridiculing this last possibility, as quite a few scientists tend to do, it is necessary … to explain the condensation of the universal wave function through the intervention of human consciousness. While this could be seen as a matter for philosophical discussion, I suspect its resolution will eventually come from exact science.

Option C, an “ensemble of other different universes,” is the multiverse concept, which we will examine in Chapter 4.

Scientists such as Paul Davies, George Greenstein, John Wheeler, and others all acknowledge the validity of Option A, the God implications of the anthropic principle. I can’t explain why Dawkins misstates the case. Is it because he’s a biologist, not an astrophysicist, and simply doesn’t know what he’s talking about? Doubtful. He could certainly have done his homework, as I have done. His misrepresentation of the anthropic evidence is inexplicable coming from a scientist of Dawkins’ calibre.

The anthropic principle is not an alternative to the God hypothesis. It doesn’t solve the problem of human existence. Rather, the anthropic principle IS the problem. The question posed by the anthropic evidence is the most important question facing science, philosophy, religion, and humanity as a whole. It’s a question that doesn’t merely cry out for an answer — it shouts to us and shakes us and demands that we answer it. The question is: WHY is the universe so incredibly, unbelievably fine-tuned to produce life?

Theistic philosopher William Lane Craig stated the problem in a 2003 debate with then-atheist philosopher Antony Flew (not long after this debate, Flew announced his conversion to a theistic world view):

The chances that the universe should be life-permitting are so infinitesimal as to be incomprehensible and incalculable. For example, Stephen Hawking has estimated that if the rate of the universe’s expansion one second after the Big Bang had been smaller by even one part in a hundred thousand million million, the universe would have recollapsed into a hot fireball. P.C.W. Davies has calculated that the odds against the initial conditions’ being suitable for later star formation (without which planets could not exist) is one followed by a thousand billion billion zeros, at least. Davies also estimates that a change in the strength of gravity or of the weak force by one part in 10100 would have prevented a life-permitting universe. There are around fifty such quantities and constants present in the Big Bang which must be fine-tuned in this way if the universe is to permit life. And it’s not just each quantity which must be finely tuned. Their ratios to one another must also be exquisitely fine-tuned. …

Paul Davies comments, “Through my scientific work, I have come to believe more and more strongly that the physical universe is put together with an ingenuity so astonishing that I cannot accept it merely as a brute fact.”

Now, this is knowledge that Dawkins seems to suppress in his allusion to the anthropic principle. In fact, the above statement by William Lane Craig scarcely begins to convey the real enormity of the problem posed by anthropic principle. What kind of analogy could I use to convey the astounding odds against a life-giving universe? I could say: Imagine flipping a coin trillions and trillions of times and every single time it comes up heads — what are the odds of such an event? Or I could say: Imagine selecting the one winning lottery ticket out of trillions and trillions of lottery tickets sold — what are your odds of winning that lottery?

Yet even those analogies don’t come anywhere close to conveying the odds against our finely tuned, just-so, life-giving universe arising by sheer chance. If Richard Dawkins understands the true implications of the anthropic principle, he should have presented them honestly, as his fellow atheist, George Greenstein, did in The Symbiotic Universe. Or as I have done in this book.

It pains me to say this because, on the whole, I admire Dawkins as a fine writer and science popularizer. I enjoy his writing in The Selfish Gene and The Blind Watchmaker. I agree with Dawkins’ statement that natural selection is a “consciousness-raiser” because it makes us aware of “the power of science to explain how organized complexity can emerge from simple beginnings without deliberate guidance.”

But Dawkins fails to understand that the anthropic principle is an equally powerful consciousness-raiser. The anthropic evidence forces us to squarely face (if we have the courage and intellectual honesty) the riddle of our existence — and the riddle of our life-giving universe.

From God and Soul: The Truth and the Proof by Jim Denney, copyright 2012 by Jim Denney.


The Puzzle of Existence and a Puddle of Doubt

A very smart man once wrote a very stupid thing in a book.His name was Douglas Adams, and the book was his posthumously published The Salmon of Doubt: Hitchhiking the Galaxy One Last Time (New York: Ballantine, 2002; pages 131-132). Adams died of a heart attack in Santa Barbara in May 2001; he was only 49. I’m a longtime fan of Douglas Adams and his Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy series. But in this instance, Adams’ analogy—known as The Puddle Analogy—is far less profound than he supposed.

Adams’ Puddle Analogy has been cited many times by various writers as a satirical demonstration of the “fallacy” of the “fine-tuned universe” argument. The Wikipedia article “Fine-Tuned Universe” quotes the Puddle Analogy and notes that the fine-tuned universe argument has been called “puddle thinking” by some critics. Richard Dawkins quotes The Puddle Analogy in A Devil’s Chaplain: Reflections on Hope, Lies, Science, and Love (page 169), adding that he had heard the Adams analogy numerous times and “thought it was more brilliant every time.”

Here is the stupid thing Douglas Adams wrote:

Imagine a puddle waking up one morning and thinking, “This is an interesting world I find myself in, an interesting hole I find myself in, fits me rather neatly, doesn’t it? In fact it fits me staggeringly well, must have been made to have me in it!” This is such a powerful idea that as the sun rises in the sky and the air heats up and as, gradually, the puddle gets smaller and smaller, it’s still frantically hanging on to the notion that everything’s going to be alright, because this world was meant to have him in it, was built to have him in it; so the moment he disappears catches him rather by surprise. I think this may be something we need to be on the watch out for.

Here’s why The Puddle Analogy is stupid:

Adams begins: “Imagine a puddle waking up one morning and thinking…” He doesn’t seem to realize that, in order for a puddle to wake up and think its first thought, a vast number of interconnected and incredibly unlikely coincidences have to occur.

The Big Bang had to happen, and the Big Bang had to explode with just the right amount of force to allow matter to disperse evenly and smoothly and allow galaxies to form. Had the Big Bang not been precisely fine-tuned, our universe might consist of nothing but tenuous hydrogen gas—or a single supermassive black hole. The laws of nature had to be laid down at the instant of the Big Bang, and had to be fine-tuned to an accuracy of one part in the trillions before the universe itself could exist, much less a contemplative puddle.

The electromagnetic force, the gravitational force, the strong nuclear force, and the weak nuclear force all had to be perfectly balanced in order for stars to form and begin cooking up the elements needed to make planets—silicon, nickel, iron, oxygen, magnesium, and so forth. Adams’ pensive puddle could not find itself sitting in “an interesting hole” unless the hole was situated on a planet orbiting a star that was part of a galaxy that was created by the incredibly fine-tuned forces and conditions of the Big Bang.

And in order for that puddle to wake up one morning and think at all, it would need to be a lot more complex than a mere puddle of water. A thinking puddle would be a very complex puddle indeed. Even if that puddle were comprised of exotic alien nerve cells suspended in a matrix of liquid ammonia, it would certainly need something like lipid molecules and protein structures and nucleic acids in order to become sufficiently evolved as to wake up and contemplate its own existence.

Such components require the existence of carbon. And if you know anything about where carbon comes from, you know that carbon doesn’t grow on trees. It is formed in an amazingly fine-tuned process involving the precise placement of a nuclear resonance level in a beryllium atom. Any enlightened plashet would have to conclude that a superintellect had monkeyed with physics, chemistry, and the biological composition of pools and puddles.

The rest of Douglas Adams’ scenario, in which “the sun rises in the sky and the air heats up and … the puddle gets smaller and smaller” is meaningless in view of the fact that thousands of events, forces, and conditions have to interact in a fine-tuned way in order for the sun to exist, the air to exist, the sky to exist, and the hole in the ground to exist, so that a puddle can wake up one morning and wonder about its place in the cosmic order.

No analogy is perfect, of course, but The Puddle Analogy is downright misleading. It misrepresents the essence of the fine-tuning argument. An analogy should simplify, but not over-simplify.

And that’s why The Puddle Analogy that Richard Dawkins thinks is so brilliant is actually incredibly dumb.

The Big Bang is Happening Now

Though the Big Bang began 13.7 billion years ago, the universe is still expanding. We are living inside the most massive explosion that ever was.

At the moment the Big Bang began, everything that exists—matter, energy, the three dimensions of space, and the fourth dimension of time—emerged from a single geometric point, expanding at the speed of light. The Big Bang actually created space and time.

Scientists are amazed that the explosive violence of the creation event was as delicately balanced as it was. Cosmologist Paul Davies observes:

Had the Big Bang been weaker, the cosmos would have soon fallen back on itself in a big crunch. On the other hand, had it been stronger, the cosmic material would have dispersed so rapidly that galaxies would not have formed. … Had the explosion differed in strength at the outset by only one part in 1060, the universe we now perceive would not exist. To give some meaning to these numbers, suppose you wanted to fire a bullet at a one-inch target on the other side of the observable universe, twenty billion light-years away. Your aim would have to be accurate to that same part in 1060…. Channeling the explosive violence into such a regular and organized pattern of motion seems like a miracle.

If the explosive force of the Big Bang not been perfectly balanced and incredibly fine-tuned, life would be impossible and you and I could not exist.

At first, the laws and constants of the universe were simply accepted as a matter of fact—no one wondered why this or that force or constant of physics was not slightly stronger or weaker than it is. Eventually, physicists began to realize (as George Greenstein observes in The Symbiotic Universe) that the “laws of nature could have been laid down only in the very instant of the creation of the universe, if not before.”

Paul Davies recalls that when he was a student, the question of where the laws of physics come from was off-limits. A scientist was supposed to simply apply those laws, not inquire into their origin. They would say, “There’s no reason the laws of physics are what they are—they just are.” Davies concluded, “The idea that the laws exist reasonlessly is deeply anti-rational. … It makes a mockery of science.”

As it became clear that the laws of nature might have been different than they are—that they appeared to have been deliberately selected to produce life—scientists began to look at these forces, laws, and constants with new sense of awe. The entire universe seemed to be constructed out of an incredibly unlikely series of cosmic coincidences. Some examples:

There are four forces governing the structure and behavior of subatomic particles—the electromagnetic force, the gravitational force, the strong nuclear force and the weak nuclear force. These forces determine everything from how an electron orbits the nucleus of an atom to how stars and galaxies are formed. Each force has a specific mathematical value called a constant (because its value never varies).

The gravitational force constant is finely tuned to permit life. Slightly greater, and stars would burn too hot, too quickly, and too unevenly to produce life-giving elements. Slightly smaller, and stars would be too cool, so that nuclear fusion could not take place and there would be no life-giving heavier elements.

The electromagnetic force is also fine-tuned. If its constant were slightly larger or smaller, the chemical bonding required for making living things could not take place.

There is a fine-tuned balance between the gravitational and electromagnetic forces. If the constant of the ratio between these two forces were larger, there would be no stars smaller than 1.4 solar masses, and the lifetime of stars would be too short to generate life-giving elements. If the constant were smaller, there would be no stars larger than 0.8 solar masses—and again, no production of life-giving heavier elements.

If the strong nuclear force constant were slightly larger, there would be no hydrogen in the universe and no stars. If this constant were smaller, the universe would consist of nothing but hydrogen.

If the weak force constant were larger, most of the hydrogen in the universe would have converted to helium during the Big Bang. If it were smaller, there’d be too little hydrogen converted to helium—a roadblock to the production of life-giving heavier elements such as carbon and oxygen.

The proton-to-electron mass ratio: A proton is 1,836 times more massive than an electron; if this ratio varied slightly in either direction, molecules could not form and life could not exist. The ratio of the number of protons to the number of electrons is also finely balanced to permit the electromagnetic force to dominate the gravitational force, allowing the formation of galaxies, stars, and planets.

The unusual properties of water are also a fine-tuned condition for life. Water plays an essential role in almost every biological function. It is necessary to photosynthesis, the foundation of the food chain. In photosynthesis, plants use sunlight to convert carbon dioxide and water into sugar, giving off oxygen as a “waste product.”

Water is one of the few liquids that expands when it freezes. Most substances contract and become more dense when they freeze, but frozen water is actually 9 percent less dense than liquid water. This is because, at freezing temperatures, the hydrogen bonds that connect water molecules make an adjustment to keep negatively charged oxygen atoms apart. This adjustment creates the crystal lattice that enables ice to float in liquid water.

If water didn’t have this extraordinary property, ice would sink, which would cause lakes and rivers to freeze solid. If ice did not float, observes George Greenstein, life on Earth “would be confined to a narrow strip lying close to the equator.”

And the list goes on: the proton decay rate, the neutron-proton mass difference, the matter-antimatter ratio, and on and on—it’s as if dozens of completely unrelated laws of nature plotted together in a vast cosmic conspiracy to produce life. As Paul Davies observes:

It is tempting to believe, therefore, that a complex universe will emerge only if the laws of physics are very close to what they are. … The laws, which enable the universe to come into being spontaneously, seem themselves to be the product of exceedingly ingenious design. If physics is the product of design, the universe must have a purpose, and the evidence of modern physics suggests strongly to me that the purpose includes us.

And physicist Fred Hoyle adds, “I do not believe that any scientist who examines the evidence would fail to draw the inference that the laws of nuclear physics have been deliberately designed.”

Is our life-giving universe the result of an inconceivably improbable series of cosmic accidents? Or is it the product of calculated, deliberate design?

Is the universe evidence—even proof—of the existence of God?